Time flies when you do! But where does it go?

Happy New Year! I’m marking it with my 12th trip northward to the best place in the world: Greenland. I’m a little biased, so if you don’t believe me, just ask Lonely Planet or National Geographic Traveler.

Getting to Greenland comes as second nature for me, and I could almost make the route with my eyes closed, so in a way I do become blind to how much time and how many steps it actually takes to get door-to-door. All I know is, it’s all worth it once I start seeing those East Greenland pointy peaks on the way to the west coast.

47.5 hours across three different days and three different airlines is what it’s going to take this time around to travel from Washington, D.C. to Ilulissat, Greenland. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. True story.

Here’s a fun little chart to show how I’m using my travel time to get north. Need some ideas for how to do the Reykjavík stopover? Check these.

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Fly WOW air

IMG_3378My latest rec for getting to Greenland cheap so you can spend the money where it counts!

EDITED 28/3-2019: Wow air is no longer in operation.

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Greenland is expensive. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way.

Short of some pretty astronomic miracles, the Air Greenland and Air Iceland prices won’t be decreasing much.

But what if I told you the solution could be WOW air?

No, WOW air does not fly to Greenland yet, but traveling with this newcomer budget airline from Europe or North America into Reykjavík (a major connection hub for Greenland) could at least make one leg of your journey much cheaper.

Not long ago I flew on WOW air for the first time and I’d like to give it the Polarphile seal of approval (I just made that up) along with an honest pledge that I would seriously consider flying with them again in the future. High marks for service, price, and personality; low marks for convenience (as someone traveling to/fro the DC Metro Area).

Post-script note: I already booked my second flight with WOW air just two months after this first trip. Despite having a free points ticket with the competitor, black out dates prohibited me from using it when I needed to. Since I was forced to use real money, booking with WOW air helped me save over 500 USD versus booking with the competitor.

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The motivation: As someone booking their ticket just 11 days before departure, I was what you call ‘price-motivated’ – exactly WOW air‘s target market.

The bottom line: 11 days before departure I bought a transatlantic flight between continental Europe and North America for 294 USD, which did include some extra purchases of mine like seat selection, cancellation protection, and 1 piece of heavy hand luggage.

Regarding the seat selection fee, this applies to choose any seat in the aircraft, not just priority seating with extra leg room, like on other airlines (I don’t think those seats even exist on WOW air’s machines). I really didn’t want to get stuck with a middle seat in front of the exit row, and truth be told, I wanted to see out the window to Greenland when flying overhead. It’s a little ritual of mine.

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Regarding the luggage fee, 5 kg of hand luggage is included in the ticket price. One can elect to purchase an additional 7 kg allowance for a fee, or else check a bag for a fee.

The Experience: 

So what had me saying “Wow“? Plenty!

* Hand-luggage only travelers are the new Business Class. WOW air offers a separate check-in line for those traveling with hand-luggage only. Therefore, I got to bypass a line of around 50 people when I arrived to the airport, which I found to be a so lovely surprise!

* There are electrical outlets under each seat. This was maybe my biggest WOW moment, in fact. Not even Icelandair offers this in economy class!

* The planes are perfectly fine, just like all other Airbus machines. Maybe I was expecting a matchbox for some reason, but the economy seats are just like any others I’ve been in, and the seats themselves are very comfortable. I flew in their new Airbus.

* They’re funny! Anybody whose business model includes launching a gigantic purple people eater into the sky has to have a sense of humor, right? And, a la Southwest Airlines out of the United States, when you take away in one department (think: the free sodas and snacks) you have to add in another. Check the Vomit-meter on their Sick Bag in the seat pocket!

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The Critique:
There’s literally only one thing that made the experience a drag – WOW air does not service IAD (Dulles International Airport) outside Washington, D.C.! If WOW air flew out of IAD I would be hooked. Hands down.

Instead, flying into/out of BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport) creates some logistical nightmares for anyone trying to connect with D.C. or Northern Virginia, like me. After 9 hours of flying, this is the absolute last thing you want, especially in this area. Not to mention, there’s no TSA Pre-Check line at BWI security. Huh?!

45 minutes on the B30 Metro Bus from BWI to the Greenbelt Metro Station before riding 1 hour on the Metro from Greenbelt to Vienna, plus an Uber, to reach my destination in Northern Virginia, which otherwise would have been just a 22 minute Uber ride from IAD. That’s what it took for me to get home after landing at BWI.

And I’m a lucky one with a Global Entry status. I don’t even want to think about how much time I would have used if I had had to wait in the standard customs line.

These public transportations cost just an additional 21 USD, so clearly the pricing still makes a compelling economic case, but somewhere on the Metro I found myself wondering if crashing on my bed still fully clothed and dead tired due to an extra 2 hours of transit was worth saving approximately 275 USD. What do you think?

Aside from that big ticket item, there are a few things that could polish up the experience to match the competition in terms of value proposition, but nothing that’s a huge game-changer for me.

* It would be fantastic to have wi-fi onboard. I would gladly pre-purchase it along with the laundry list of other add-ons. What’s another 10 USD?

* A self check-in kiosk would be great!

The Facts:
WOW air flies to Reykjavík from Montreal, Toronto, Boston, and Baltimore in North America (and soon from Los Angeles and San Francisco, too) and from 17 European cities including London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and others.

WOW air advertises their base fares and then offers a whole host of optional fees and charges, plus various taxes. For example, at first glance my 294 USD ticket looked like it was going to cost just 129 USD. And really, many of the “electives” are virtually unavoidable so you have to pay extra no matter what. Is it really realistic to travel across the Atlantic with only a purse?

WOW air offers a wide selection of food and beverages on board for 250-1500 ISK (2-11 USD, or 2-11 EUR). Note that even non-alcoholic beverages like water, soda, and coffee/tea must also be purchased for 300-350 ISK (2-2.50 USD, or 2-2.5 EUR). The pricing is nearly exactly the same as you’ll find in the airport stores, at least it was for the wine, water, sandwich, and yoghurt I bought, so no need to nearly miss your boarding call to try to save some pocket change on refreshments.

All in all, given the late notice of booking and the distance traveled, I would say the 294 USD on Wow air is well spent. But given the circus involved in getting between BWI and the DC Metro Area, I would say there’s definitely grounds to think long and hard whether the cheaper airfare is worth the extra transit steps.

How to Stopover in Reykjavík, Iceland

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A Brief History of Tourism in Iceland

In less than a decade, Iceland put itself on the travel map with its Icelandair Free Stopover campaign. Located right in the Midatlantic, why not spend a night or 7 in Reykjavík, the capital city, at no extra airfare charge when to-ing and fro-ing between North America and Europe?

IMG_0311Photo taken from the top of Hallgrímskirkja in city center Reykjavík in May 2012.

I can remember when a former colleague and her boyfriend went to Iceland back in autumn 2009, and we all looked at them and said a collective “Huh?!” We knew nothing about the country to be honest, and they were the first people we had ever heard of traveling there. Now, with 969,181 tourists visiting Iceland in 2014, mostly from the UK and the US but also from as far as Japan and China, I would venture to say that this type of anecdote is a thing of the past.

Something tells me the Icelandic tourism gods are trying something new now, though. It’s no longer about the Free Stopover but more about the Return Visit or the Extended Stay. ‘There’s more to see!’ was recently the tagline on the cover of Reykjavík Living.

My Iceland Stopover

But if you’re like me, traveling between North America and Greenland, then the whole Free Stopover thing is still highly relevant and, in fact, necessary. Unfortunately the ‘free’ part is not applicable since Icelandair does not yet fly onward to Greenland.

The first few times in Iceland I tried the classics like getting all purified and mud-masked in the Blue Lagoon, being the youngest by a handful of decades on the Golden Circle Bus Tour, and seeing how Glacier Walking in Iceland compares to Greenland.

But often my transit time in Iceland is during pretty odd hours of the day – like 3 AM to 5 PM or like 6 AM to 10 AM – so I stay close to city center most times. Which makes me a great source of info for how to kill it during a stopover!

Top 7 Must Do’s on a Reykjavík Stopover

Without further ado, here is my personal list of tried and true things to do in Reykjavík city center. So tried and true, in fact, that if I’m in the city, you’re almost guaranteed to find me at one of these places!

1. Shop the Strip

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Ravens shop at Laugavegur 15.

Did you know that Reykjavík means ‘place of 10,000 kitschy things’? Just kidding, it means ‘the smoky harbor’ (I think), but anyway the city is chock full of shopping opps!

Laugavegur is the main east-west thoroughfare in Reykjavík city center, and in summer time it is closed for cars and becomes a pedestrian street. You could literally spend hours making your way from shop to shop. There’s a lot of super touristy stores where you can buy all the Made in China puffin magnets and Viking helmets your heart desires, but there’s also plenty of small, locally owned clothing and gift shops.

Sorry in advance that this list is woman- and gift-oriented 🙂 Check out:

* Kronkron at Laugavegur 63 for technicolored designer Icelandic shoes. They are a bit pricy, but literally one of a kind.

* Systur & Makar at Laugavegur 40 for handmade cards, lotions, fun jewelry, and small gifts.

* Fóa at Laugavegur 2 for fish skin accessories, woolen and wooden wares, and bone jewelry.

* Ravens at Laugavegur 15 for Greenlandic designer clothing and authentic handmade beaded jewelry.

Also, don’t let the thought ‘Maybe I can find this in the airport tax free’ enter your mind for a minute. As long as you have a permanent address outside Iceland, anything you buy anywhere in Iceland (over 6000 ISK / 40 EUR / 45 USD) is eligible for a 14% tax refund. Ask the cashier for the tax refund receipt, fill it out, and drop it off in Keflavik International Airport.

2. Grab a Coffee

IMG_5590Te & Kaffi coffee shop at Laugavegur 27.

There are a ton of coffee shops around Reykjavík. It makes sense, right? How else are you expected to stay awake long enough to enjoy all 22 hours of sunlight in summertime?

Visit Café Babalú at Skólavörðustígur 22, a colorful building just downhill from Hallgrímskirkja, for organic juices and yummy dessert crepes. In summer the upstairs patio is sun-soaked, and in winter you’re invited to make yourself cozy and stay a while with board games and Chai Latte.

Also try Café Haiti at the harbor at Geirsgata 7c for strong coffee and a story about how a Caribbean found herself in Iceland.

Or go to Te & Kaffi at Laugavegur 27 and order yourself a pot of Lapsang Souchong, a.k.a. smoked tea and affectionately known in my world as ‘the best tea there ever was’.

3. Visit the Greenland Centre

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Greenland Centre at Laugavegur 96. Photo credit: glc.gl.

This shop at Laugavegur 96 is near and dear to my heart, for obvious reasons but also because it has such a welcoming atmosphere. Browse fine clothing and accessories made from Greenlandic animal skins like reindeer, seal, and muskox. Whether you are on your way to/from Greenland or still dreaming to check off this #1 Bucket List destination, chat with the owners about Greenland and particularly South Greenland, their specialty.

4. Stuff your Face

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Salted cod entrée at MAR at Geirsgata 9.

Maybe I sound redundant saying that Reykjavík is filled with this, that, and the other, but Reykjavík is also filled with tons of restaurants! In the US, I’m a diehard fan of the Eater websites to tell me the hot places to try, so without it in Reykjavík, I admit that I tend to stick to what I know.

I love Kaffi Sólon at Bankastræti 7a for the quiet atmosphere indoors and comfort food. They pared down their menu a bit recently so my favorite risotto dish is just a memory now, but they’ve got a super burger (that’s literally the name) and many fish dishes.

Fish Market at Aðalstræti 12 is a full dining experience great for groups, and you better go ahead and start some endurance training for your stomach now. Their tasting menu is something like 9 mouthwatering courses and can be shared between many people!

MAR at the harbor at Geirsgata 9 is nice for a swanky lunch!

5. Gaze at the Outdoor Art Museum

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And by outdoor art museum I mean the oh-so-colorful graffiti that is all over Reykjavík. Some are beautiful, some are scary, some are abstract, and some are thought provoking, but all have the artists’ hearts and souls behind them.

6. Catch a Concert

I’m told Iceland is a musically inclined country. Hmm, I didn’t know it. Just kidding! Most of the world probably knows Icelandic music because of Björk back in the 90’s and more recently because of Of Monsters and Men.

Hey, here’s a trip idea for you!

In mid-June, hit Iceland for the Summer Solstice Festival and then pop over to Greenland for National Day (21 June). Greenland celebrates achieving Self Rule Government from Denmark in style and sunshine on the longest day of the year! Kayaking competitions, live music, and barbecues are just some of the day’s activities, and they vary from town to town. Nuuk, the capital city, throws the biggest shindig and it is just a 3-hour flight from Reykjavík via either Air Greenland or Air Iceland. You could also reach Ilulissat, Kulusuk, and Narsarsuaq directly from Reykjavík.

7. Count the Cool Cars

IMG_6436Photo taken in December 2013.

The Land Rover Defender must be the national car of Iceland because it is everywhere. I’m sure it’s for function in wintertime, but if I lived here, I would have one for purely for fashion! Man, it looks good.

Want to read about hopping from one Arctic metropolis to another? Check out the City Hopping in the Arctic article I wrote for our Visit Greenland newsletter in 2014.

Greenland and Iceland Combination Holiday!

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Photo credit: Mads Pihl / Visit Greenland. Nuuk by night.

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Photo credit: Skarphéðinn Þráinsson, www.skarpi.is. Reykjavík skyline.

Greenland and Iceland – two adventurous destinations, close enough to hit in the same holiday!

Read Visit Greenland’s latest newsletter all about combining Greenland and Iceland in the same trip.

Compare wild nature across both countries… Learn about cultural opportunities in the capital cities of Nuuk and Reykjavík… and Delve into the Viking history that connects Greenland and Iceland forever.

See you in the Arctic!

PHOTO GALLERY: A Walk on the Ice(land) Side

For many tourists, Greenland is the add-on to Iceland because they see the combination tour advertised in their travel agent’s portfolio or something. But for me, it is the opposite! Iceland is the “add-on” or “necessary evil” in order to get to Greenland.

Coming from Washington DC, the most direct way for me to get to Greenland is through Keflavik, (Reykjavik, Iceland’s international airport). From there, I have choices for how to get to Greenland, and where. Depending on the time of year, I can fly direct Keflavik to Nuuk, Keflavik to Narsarsuaq, Reykjavik to Nuuk, Reykjavik to Ilulissat, Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq, or Reykjavik to Kulusuk.

Long story short, Iceland is in my life because Greenland is in my life. Thanks to this, I am currently on my 9th visit to Reykjavik. 7 out of 9 times I just spend some hours or one weekday night, so I stay within the city limits and just sightsee and eat good food.

But this time I have 3 weekend nights (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) and a bit more freedom! So I bought the Reykjavik Excursions tour called “A Walk on the Ice Side”. Reykjavik Excursions provided the bus transportation, and Icelandic Mountain Guides provided the guiding on the glacier. We walked on Sólheimajökull Glacier and we stopped very briefly (like 15 minutes) at two waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.

Here are some of my pictures:

Toward Sólheimajökull GlacierIMG_6160

Sun over Sólheimajökull Glacier (white in the foreground and blue in the middle-ground are the glacier; dark in the background is land).P1020596

Guide, Ana, teaching proper positioning to peer down into a glacial moulin.IMG_6168

More guiding. It is snow weather now!P1020586

Cool tunnel on the glacier. Formed by gallons upon gallons of melt water rushing through here. Hard to imagine, huh?P1020610

Inside the tunnel. Not quite tall enough to stand in. Approximately 1.5 meters (4 feet) high.P1020612

A crevasse in the glacier. Looks a bit like a Georgia O’Keefe painting if you ask me!P1020577

We were in the shadows (or snow weather) most of the day, so this sun was a welcome sight!P1020597

Measurement equipment. This device reveals that Sólheimajökull Glacier depressed (melted downward) 8 meters (26 feet) since May 2013 (6 months time). For more information about glacial retreat, especially on THIS VERY GLACIER, see the movie Chasing Ice!P1020601

It is getting late in the day. P1020603

Between the many certified guides and this Search and Rescue Team practicing drills, there was a lot of safety on the glacier!P1020581

On the way out, we passed another group doing ice climbing with belayers.   P1020627

SkógafossP1020638

Seljalandsfoss – neat because you can walk behind the fall P1020649

Now the practical info… (Keep in mind that the date is 17 November.)

What clothing did I wear?
– Thermal pants
– Heavyweight dry-fit thermal shirt
– Water resistant pants
– Fleece layer
– Down jacket
– Breathable wool socks
– Waterproof hiking boots
– Wool hat
– Glove liners w/ touchscreen finger tips
– Gloves

What extra clothing/accessories did I have in my daypack?
– Extra socks
– Wool sweater
– Extra dry-fit shirt
– Waterproof rain pants
– Waterproof rain jacket

Did I need these extra items?
Regardless of whether I needed the extra items or not, it is always better to be prepared! So if you’re reading this, still bring the items!

I did break out the waterproof pants and jacket when we visited the waterfalls, but that was to protect against fierce spray! On the glacier, I did not need these items. And I was plenty warm with my layers, so the extra shirt and wool stayed in my pack.

What other items did I have in my daypack?
– Lunch (ham&cheese sandwich, piece of fruit, chocolate bar, juice)
– Plenty of water
– Sunglasses (see Tips below)
– Sunscreen (see Tips below)
– Camera, extra memory card(s), etc. (See Tips below)
– Pen & paper
– Lip balm

Last but not least… Don’t forget your adrenaline and sense of adventure !!!

Other tips/info:
– It sounds counterintuitive to need sunglasses and sun cream during the Arctic autumn/winter, but the sun does rise all year round in Iceland. And it’s reflection off the snow can be powerful! Do yourself a favor and protect your eyes and skin.

– If I can recommend one single item to splurge on, it is quality boots. Of course, you must consider your budget, how many times you will use them, etc. but in general, DO NOT skimp on footwear. Get something that is tall/supportive for the ankle, waterproof, and warm. Nothing is more uncomfortable than cold toes, but it is also a safety risk. If you can’t feel your feet, you could take missteps and injure yourself. Today, all the guides were wearing Scarpa boots.

– Colder temperatures can typically affect the performance of electronics, so keep them as close to your body as possible to help extend their life! For example, on this tour my iPhone 4S turned off with 16% battery remaining. And in Greenland in March, my SD card completely froze.

– RE always does a communal pickup at the hotels, takes you to their home base – BSÍ Terminal, and from there you meet your exact tour group. Look for the name of the tour in the front window of the bus.

– The bus ride to the starting point of this tour (and probably others) is quite long (2 hours). There was no guiding or information during transport on this tour, so you may want to bring reading material, music, etc. for the ride to and fro.

Brand Loyalty – Food for Thought

You often hear about travelers having brand loyalty to a particular airline or hotel company… And you often hear about avid cruisers having brand loyalty to a particular cruise line, or even ship…

But how does that brand loyalty start?

Does the traveler actually do detailed research, meticulously compare all the options, and finally select the brand that is right for him/her?

Or does the traveler more or less stumble upon the brand, have a satisfactory experience, and simply stick with it?

Using an example from my own personal experience in Reykjavik, Iceland, I fall into category 2. For my first trip to Reykjavik, I chose Hotel Klöpp based on location and price. I’m not an “amenities woman”; I just need a comfortable and convenient place to sleep with a bit of breakfast in the morning. This hotel fit the bill.

For my second trip to Reykjavik, I chose the same hotel because I knew it was a positive experience. Upon arrival, I discovered I had been upgraded to their Hotel Þingholt , a much swankier hotel with beautiful fresh orchids in the lobby and rooms furnished with horse-hair rugs, black leather upholstery, and chrome fixtures. This was more than I needed, but damn it was a good experience, too!

Now on my third overnight trip to Reykjavik, I chose the upgraded hotel! Maybe that was the company’s ploy all along?! But in any case, my newfound brand loyalty to them came out of pure luck.

Another question – can the concept of brand loyalty be applied at the destination level?

Can a traveler fall in love with a place and keep going back and back and back?

Or will he/she live by the motto: “The world is too big, and life is too short, to do the same thing twice!”?

Using another example from my own personal and professional experience in Greenland, I have to say that I think most people fall into Category 1… but they do have the potential to fall into Category 2 IF they find the destination(s) that truly fulfill all their motivations, dreams, and desires about travel.

Of course, I am a bit biased to Greenland having crossed the line from tourist to part-time resident, but I have found myself in Category 2. You cannot convince me otherwise that if I had experienced Greenland as a true tourist in 2012, I would have already gone back for trip #2 by 2013. And I would be planning ahead for trips #3, 4, and so on.

Greenland fulfills every hope and dream I never knew I had, and I can distinctly remember the feeling I had when I first landed in East Greenland on 26 May 2012. I felt as though I did not need to see another place on this planet to feel so fulfilled… And that feeling remains today.

I have cultivated brand loyalty to Greenland!!

Iceland: Day 3 (Church Tower)

(From Saturday, May 26, 2012)

Despite looking forward to another delicious Icelandic breakflast of Skyr and granola, Sharon and I could not pull ourselves out of bed until 11! Checkout was at 12, so we quickly got our things together and vacated our room.  As with check-in, the front desk attendant graciously allowed us to keep our bags behind the desk so that we could explore the City Center without having to haul cumbersome luggage.

We wanted to explore the large church at the top of the hill (according to GoogleMaps there is an ice rink there, too?) so we looked for a café along the way.  We found one on Bankastræti right around the corner from our hotel, so we went there. It was only after ordering and sitting down that we discovered there was an overwhelming Christian theme about the place! Nevertheless, it was a warm atmosphere with Mumford & Sons playing, and the food was good, even though it did take a very long time for our food to arrive.

After breakfast, we strolled up Skólavörthustígur to the church. We paid 500 ISK (about $4 USD) to ride up the elevator to the eighth floor for a panoramic view of the city. Then we walked up one more floor to compare the views! I would have liked to have climbed the stairs from the ground floor, but the doors to the stairwells were locked. After a number of North, South, East, and West photos, we went back down the elevator and got back to our hotel with not a moment to spare! We picked up our luggage, boarded a Reykjavik Excursions FlyBus+ and headed out to the Keflavik International Airport.

Iceland: Day 2 (Golden Circle Tour)

(From Friday, May 25, 2012)

Sharon and I started off the day with a nice breakfast provided by CenterHotel Klöpp.  I had flatbread with Icelandic butter, flatbread with different jams (orange and strawberry), melon, and of course, Icelandic Skyr (thick, tart yogurt) with granola. Delicious!

We had signed up for a Reykjavik Excursions tour called the Golden Circle, and the tour company picked us up right at our front door in a small mini coach. It was really quite advantageous to use the tour company because they not only provided the transportation to many sites that we never would have gotten to but also had free wi-fi on the coaches. So essentially, I could email with people back and forth all day, which was wonderful given that it was just my first hours and days away from my boyfriend, friends, and family!

The tour lasted from 830 until 1830 and we went all throughout the South Iceland region. Our guide was named Höskulder but told us we could call him “Hershey”, even though names ending in the “y” sound are more feminine. He narrated the bus ride the entire time and focused heavily on informing us about the geologic history and background of the places we passed and visited. I very much liked this aspect!

Our first stop was in Hvergardi for a bathroom break at this earthquake museum – it was a little contrived, but there were informative signs all about. The interesting part about this town was that it is technically at the bottom of the ocean! The mountain/volcano peaks that can be seen there used to be covered with underwater glaciers, so the lowest part of the valley served as the ocean floor.

Our second stop was in Hrunamannahreppur where we saw this old church – I guess I took a catnap in the bus when Höskulder was telling the meaning of this church because I don’t remember the story behind it!

Our third stop was Gullfoss, this amazingly powerful glacial waterfall! We had about forty minutes here to walk right up to the edge of the waterfall practically.  There was so much mist spraying back from the water that we were soaked even standing back a bit from the edge. I think on our way back to the bus people that were just arriving to the pathway saw our soaked jackets and turned around to go back to the bus!

Our fourth stop was Geysir to see the, well, geysers.  There was only one that erupted frequently, about every 6-8 minutes; it was called Strokkur. There were a couple of other geysirs (Geysir, Litli Geysir, and Two Colors geysir). We spent some time walking around the geysir fields taking photos, and then we went across the street to Hotel Geysir for lunch and to buy souvenirs if we wished. For lunch, I had Samloka m/ Hangikjöti og Baunasalati (Smoked Lamb with Bean Salad). It was good, but the smoked lamb definitely had a strong aftertaste!

After lunch, we drove through the town of Laugarvatn where three men got off the bus in order to go to the Fontana hot spring spa close by. We could see it from the bus, and it was much smaller than the Blue Lagoon Spa but still looked nice and relaxing and hot!

The final stop on our Golden Circle Tour was Thingvellir National Park. It was very beautiful, right on Thingvellirvatn Lake, the largest natural lake in Iceland. This area was rich in geological history as well. There is a large rift valley that can be viewed; it is formed because of the sea-spreading of two tectonic plates (North American and Eurasia) that Iceland spans. It should be noted, though, that the boundary between the two plates is not where the rift occurs, as most people assume. The rift happens because of weakness beneath the plate as it pulls apart – the ground sinks down, as there is not much support for the land above.

Some other things Höskulder taught us while en route:

  • 80% of the country’s energy is provided geothermally; the only fossil fuel used is for transportation
  • Lava field craters are formed when steam releases from the ground causing the ground to bulge upward; evidently the only other place in the universe where this found is on Mars. The lava fields are some 9000 years old, and the youngest are only 1000 years old, called the “Christianity Lava Field”.
  • Some parts of Iceland are 60 million years old.
  • January is the coldest month (averaging 30 degrees Fahrenheit) and July is the warmest month (averaging 58 degrees Fahrenheit). Anything above 68 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a heat wave, and everything closes down so that the residents can enjoy the weather!
  • In 1907, the country was reforested with pine from Alaska and Siberia. Birch trees are native, but they are small and shrub-like, and they are also bent rather than straight. There was an ice age that lasted until about 40 years ago, which stunted tree growth. Humans were cutting down trees faster than they were growing, which put a strain on the land. That is why they now have the protected areas, which are called “The Forest of the Icelandic People”.
  • Eyjafyallajökull erupted two years ago and seemed awful, but it was nothing compared to the eruption of 1700’s that opened a fissure almost 15 miles long!
  • There are no reptiles in Iceland, and very few insects (none of which is a mosquito or tick). Only 84 species of birds live in Iceland, and most are seabirds like the Arctic Turn which flies annually between Antarctica and Iceland.

When we returned to town, we were, again, in search of dinner and this time chose Kaffe Loki on Lokastígur because it advertised traditional Iceland food.  My travel mate and I ordered two menu items – the Braveheart and Dinner II – to share.  Both came with flatbread & butter, fermented shark, and dried fish & butter. The Braveheart added a shot of “Black Death”, a high alcohol-content liquor. I had seen Anthony Bourdain try it on his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, so I, of course, had to follow in his footsteps and try it as well! The Dinner II added flatbread with mashed fish (extremely savory and delicious!), flatbread with butter and smoked lamb, and flatbread with salmon and cottage cheese. Everything was delicious – we devoured every bite! I was sorry that I never got a chance to try the Icelandic meat soup, but I know just the place to get it when I pass back through at the end of September.

The last thing we did before bed was strategically repack our luggage. The luggage regulations to fly Icelandair are much more forgiving than those of Air Greenland. We managed to get everything down to one checked bag per person (weighing 20 kilos), one carry-on bag each (which they call hand luggage, and could be 8 kilos I think), and one personal bag each like a purse or computer bag. Fortunately, I had meticulously weighed my bags before departing Washington, D.C. so I did not have any anxiety about paying exorbitant “overweight luggage” fees!

Iceland: Day 1 (Blue Lagoon; Kaffi Solón)

I landed in Keflavik, Iceland around 07:00 this morning, Thursday May 24, 2012. I met up with my fellow Visit Greenland intern, Sharon, in the customs line, and together we got through the airport fairly quickly. Fortunately, we had already made transportation reservations to get us from the Keflavik International Airport to our hotel in the city center of Reykjavik, which was about a 40 minute drive, so we quickly got our bags loaded onto the FlyBus+ and were on our way. The road between the airport and the city center is flanked on either side by volcanic lava fields. It’s basically this extremely dark rocky terrain covered by a thin layer of moss.

 

We got to our hotel many hours before check-in, but the front desk attendant was nice enough to let us store our bags behind the front desk in the meantime. So we dropped our bags off and went in search of food because we were starving!! Actually, the first stop was the bank so that I could convert USD to ISK.  Then, we popped into Cafe Paris and got a light breakfast of Croque Monsieur and a Ham and Cheese Omelet. With about four more hours to kill, we decided to go on a walking tour of Reykjavik. We were not exactly sure where we were going, but we definitely figured out very quickly that Reykjavik is quite a hilly city! We had lost our map so it just felt like we kept going uphill and downhill, uphill and downhill. We finally decided to make a quick stop into City Hall to grab a map and take cover from the rain! City Hall is quite architecturally unique and sits right on the edge of Tjörnin Lake with lots of ducks, seagulls, etc. Inside City Hall is this massive, larger than life topographic rendition of Iceland. I cannot even begin to imagine how many days, months, even years it took to construct this layer by layer!

At this point, we have our bearings back and are just wanting to get back to our hotel because it is raining, and when I say raining, I mean it’s misting but in a very heavy way! We make it back to our hotel about 1215 and decide that we don’t want to wait to check-in anymore – we want to use our afternoon wisely and go to the Blue Lagoon, a natural spa whose main attraction is geothermal hot springs. We look up tickets online and see that a bus is leaving in 30 minutes from the terminal that is 15 minutes away. So Sharon and I look at each other, take about five minutes to grab our bags and hightail it to the Reykjavik Excursions bus terminal!

The Blue Lagoon Spa was amazing! We spent many hours there soaking in the hot springs, lathering silica mud onto our faces, and popping into the sauna and steam baths. The spa offered massages and various body treatments, but just soaking in the water was treatment enough for us!

After the spa, we spent a good deal of time deciding where to eat for dinner. We settled on  Kaffe Solon on Ingólfsstræti, and we were not disappointed! The ambience was great and the food was amazing! I believe Sharon ordered a tagliatelle pasta, and I order the Catch of the Day (Thorskur, I think it was called) – Tempura Villisvepparisotto m/ tomatpesto og parmaskinku – and paired it with an Egils Gull beer! Mmmmmmmm!